Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.02

Lillian E. Doherty, Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth.   London:  Duckworth, 2001.  Pp. 192.  ISBN 0-7156-3042-3.  £9.99.  

Reviewed by Susan Deacy, University of Manchester (

This thoughtful and timely short book forms part of the Classical Inter/faces series from Duckworth which examines aspects of antiquity that have had a particular impact upon the modern world. 'Myth' or 'gender' alone would have fitted the series brief; Lillian Doherty's examination of various encounters between the two areas supplies added vibrancy at a time when the meaning and significance of both continue to provoke debate and controversy.

The book discusses various existing threads of research, while also proposing directions for future investigation. Key figures in feminist studies are examined (though with certain omissions -- see below), as are certain 'Great Men' (e.g. Freud and Lévi-Strauss, though not Lacan -- again see below) whose work is open to re-evaluation from feminist perspectives. More broadly, D.'s discussion also extends beyond the 'confines' of scholarship to the retellings of myths in 'popular' contexts such as film, TV, and the controversial (to many scholars at least) 'Goddess movement'. Indeed, as the book unfolds, a dialogue unfolds between 'popular' and 'scholarly' approaches, and D. comes to make some unexpected suggestions concerning how each 'side' can learn from the other.

This dialogue is begun in a useful preface entitled 'Classical Myths in Contemporary Culture'. As D. shows, myths are continually being worked in ways that speak vividly to our world, because, in the well-worn -- though highly convenient -- phrase quoted by D., they are 'good to think with' (9). This aspect of their appeal holds good for scholars and 'lay' people alike. Then there is the 'doubleness' of myth: its evocation of strange worlds and weird beings that enables the disturbing issues it is capable of raising to be dealt with from a convenient distance. This helps explain the cultural appropriation of myth but also provides an explanation for its continued appeal in academic discourse.

The first chapter proper, 'Myth and Gender Systems', continues this discussion by recounting the experience of a fictional (I think) 'curious American eighteen-year-old' called (for reasons that did not become clear to me) Sara. By chance, Sara becomes intrigued by the story of Demeter and Persephone, and her attempts to find out more provide a route, for us as well as for Sara, into modern retellings, ancient versions, and scholarly interpretations. This allows D. to emphasise the fluidity of the myth, open as it is to the production of a variety of meanings that shift in the light of developments in the 'real' world (e.g. as regards notions of family relationships, growing up, marriage, and even working mothers). With Sara's interest initially being stimulated by the Demeter-Persephone story as presented in an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, she embarks on a journey of discovery that takes her from handbooks of myth such as those by Edith Hamilton and Thomas Bulfinch, through to 1960s popular fiction where Persephone ranges from quintessential flower child to Mills and Boon-type heroine. Embarking on a college course on myth, Sara comes into contact with the key ancient versions, and, gradually, with various modes of scholarly interpretation, such as structuralism and folklore studies.

The next chapter, 'Psychological Approaches', is seemingly very different, given its focus upon complex theoretical explanations for the development of gender identity. Like Chapter 1, however, its emphasis is the continued survival of, and fascination generated by, certain myths (Oedipus of course, and others including Perseus and narratives of the Olympian succession). Subtly, though, D. moves her argument on by examining a key disjunction between 'scholarly' developments and those of more 'popular' appeal. For one thing, Freud's rationalistic dissection of myth as something essentially regressive can be contrasted to the rather more optimistic approach of Jung that has inspired many artistic readings, as well as a range of 'self-help' literature centring upon feminine mythic archetypes. This chapter leaves Sara behind, which is something of a shame as a discussion of how an intelligent undergraduate might attempt to engage with the various interpretative issues would have followed on nicely from the discussion of her initial journey through the world of myth. This is especially the case since D. informs us that her own students (people like Sara?) have experienced difficulties with one of the psychological approaches, that of Freud, with its focus upon penis envy and biological determinism.

Chapter 3, 'Myth and Ritual', deals with another area with a long scholarly history, but, whereas psychological theory has largely had a marginal influence upon classical scholarship, this one has played a prominent part within the discipline. With a particular focus upon research into sacrifice and initiation rites, D. explores a range of scholarly positions from the work of Jane Harrison and others of the 'Cambridge School', through to developments in the mid to late twentieth century by scholars including Burkert and Girard, and finally, several recent studies, such as those of Helen King, which have begun to explore the gendered implications of (especially female) initiation. D. highlights the centrality of blood and sacrifice to ancient women's lives from menstruation, to defloration, to childbirth. This in turn has the potential for enhancing our understanding of the numerous myths and rites that involve the goddess Artemis, with her paradoxical positioning between the transgressive space of the wilds and the domesticated world of marriage and patriarchal control. The discussion raises key questions concerning how to 'do' feminist scholarship on classical myth in that the material 'speaks' to our world, but also leads us to confront a world that is quintessentially alien. How far should we be seeking to rework the ancient stories from new perspectives? To what extent, conversely, should we strive to recover ancient systems, however removed they are from our own? It is to be hoped that D. will take this preliminary research further in subsequent work.

A different perspective on these questions, and on the state -- indeed, the very nature -- of scholarship, is presented in the thought-provoking fourth chapter, 'Myth as Charter'. As D. shows here, the relationship between scholarly quests for objectivity and truth on the one hand and myth -- 'falsehood' -- on the other has long been one of conflict. Indeed, the 'myth v. logos' debate has its roots in antiquity. Yet in fact they do comparable things, not least in their ability to offer explanations of how things 'are', or at least should be. The boundaries between the two areas merit investigation so that, as D. states, 'it would be irresponsible of a teacher and writer whose subject is myth to deny the similarities between her own activity and that of self-confessed mythmakers' (102). The main issue that she focuses upon is the 'Goddess movement', whose adherents believe that prehistoric culture was structured on peaceful, matriarchal lines, where religion centred around the worship of an original Great Goddess. The movement has been highly influential with its presentation of an alternative, not to say, emancipatory, form of social and religious organisation. But appealing though it has been among 'lay' feminists, as D. shows, feminist scholars have tended to be sceptical of its essentialist precepts, which risk replacing one convenient monotheistic picture with another. The 'Goddess movement' provides reassuring answers; feminist scholars in contrast tend to steer clear of authoritative (patriarchal?) conclusions. D.'s analysis points to certain ironies in this disjunction, for she argues that modern scholarship and myth-making processes are doing comparable things. 'Both sides', she writes, 'understand that religion is, at least in part, a social phenomenon: a source of cohesion among people and of models and sanctions for their behaviour'. As she writes a little later on, 'in an age and a society where the common culture is secular, scholarship comes to carry a large share of the authority that other societies have vested in religion' (113). Various activities, such as sport and cinema, are currently described as the 'new religion'; D. makes a persuasive and committed argument for scholarship in this regard. Her position is at once even-handed and, it must be said, controversial, especially in the context of a discussion of the 'Goddess movement', the very topic that has tended to create a gulf between 'lay' and 'academic' positions. Although D. is able to show an inter-relationship between recent scholarship and myth-making processes, what also emerges is the uneasy nature of the relationship that she chooses to explore in depth.

Such complexities are explored further in chapter 5, on 'Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Approaches'. Here, D. emphasises that scholarship often involves a process of 'bricolage', whereby aspects of older theories are adduced in order to generate new meaning. Similarly, she argues, myth-making involves the reworking of stories in the light of contemporary issues and concerns. These boundaries can be shown to be especially flexible in structuralist and poststructuralist readings, different though their focuses will inevitably be in key respects. With a look at readings of myths including those of Oedipus, Prometheus and Pandora, D. examines how stucturalism typically mediates between contradictions, not least male/female, in order to help people be reconciled with their place in the world, whereas poststructuralism uncovers the fluidity of these apparently insurmountable oppositions. As she stresses, the feminist potential here is great since it allows for the destabilisation of hierarchies whose stability may be illusory. D.'s analysis here nicely complements the first chapter where 'Sara' was led from modern cultural appropriations to the ancient versions; now we as scholars are provided with a means of theorising the appeal of particular stories in particular contexts. All the same, D.'s approach is a cautious one: 'as one whose scholarly work has focused on the Odyssey', she writes, 'with its insistence that human beings can remain ''the same'' for twenty years, I am myself reluctant to abandon the unified subject'. But, she says, this should not stop us from trying out the methodology, even where the Odyssey is concerned. Its central hero is, after all, the one who is polytropos ('of many turns'): 'he may be the ''same'' man who left for the Trojan War, but this ''sameness'' paradoxically includes a capacity for difference' (142). So, she seems to be suggesting, we should let ourselves become self-consciously drawn into the process of 'bricolage', by adducing aspects of poststructuralism in the light of more traditional approaches as a means of shedding new light upon particular myths.

D. draws together her principal themes in the final -- shortest -- sixth chapter, 'Myth, Folklore, and Popular Culture'. The first two categories -- myth and folklore -- seem to have little in common, involving as they often (though far from always) do elite traditions on the one hand and popular ones on the other. Both, however, involve the study of traditional narratives that were originally transmitted orally with a degree of female involvement that is increasingly being recognised. D. stresses the value of the study of popular culture as a point of comparison between elite and popular texts. This leads her to emphasise in her closing words that 'interpretation is not limited to scholarly articles and books: it can also take the form of retellings, illustrations, online chats, or conversations over dinner.' To quote the final sentence: 'So the future of classical mythology and its interpretation belongs to all of us' (169).

The 'us' in the quotation I suppose indicates scholars and 'lay' persons alike. This leads one to reflect upon the book's readership. Early on, D. envisages an 'educated but nonspecialist reader' (13). Most often, however, it seems to be her fellow classicists to whom she is speaking. As she states concerning psychological interpretations for example, these have often been disregarded by classicists, but 'we are probably the beneficiaries of its popularity' (74). It is in places like this, for me, where the book comes especially alive. It shows how feminist classicists may seek bridges with other disciplines, engage with 'popular' approaches, and -- hopefully -- keep students (the 'Saras' that we teach) wanting to take our courses. As for readership, then, it is likely to be classicists that will benefit especially from this sensitive appraisal of an aspect of the discipline, although it ought also to be of value to those working in other subject areas discussed in the book, including anthropology, cultural studies, folklore studies, and psychology. Students at the final year of BA study and beyond ought also to find much of merit here, helped by the exceptionally reasonable price of just £9.99.

In under 200 pages, D. covers an impressive amount, although I was struck by certain omissions. Firstly, there is little on the Francophone scholars Kristeva, Irigaray and Cixous, whose work has drawn heavily upon classical myth and whose feminist readings are increasingly exerting an influence upon classical scholarship.1 Interestingly, only one of the three -- Cixous -- is included in the bibliography, from which Foucault is also omitted, even though there is a useful appraisal of his work on pp. 142-3. Nor is there anything on Lacan, even though, as the so-called 'French Freud', his reading of his predecessor is being tapped by feminist scholars for its enormous implications for understandings of feminism and sexual difference.

Secondly, in a short note at the start of an annotated 'Further Reading' section, D. explains that visual art, though an 'important topic', was 'omitted from the book for want of space' (187). Even so, this is a major omission. The rich ancient iconographical record has great implications for how we understand ancient gender systems. The controversy generated in the mid 1990s by Joan B. Connelly's 'feminist' interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze2 among classicists, archaeologists, and indeed beyond, thanks to the extensive media coverage, is an excellent case in point. Then there are the numerous modern artistic works, not least Audley Flack's 'Colossal head of Medusa' of 1991 that provides the striking cover picture for the book. On my interpretation of the sculpture, Flack engages with, and reworks, the ancient image in just the kind of way that D. advocates. Emphasis would have been added to her discussion through consideration of this work at the very least, especially as the image may have helped to encourage the reader to buy the book in the first place.

Finally, in a book whose title begins with the word 'gender', I expected more on certain of the recent developments in the study of ancient masculinity and in the history of sexuality. But, whereas the title is misleading ('Feminism and the Interpretation of Classical Myth' would have fitted the book's contents more closely), the emphasis upon women and femininity is to be welcomed. A common view among feminist classicists since the mid to late 1990s has been that the distinctive nature of women's voices should continue to be heard and that we should take pains to avoid subordinating 'women's studies' to 'gender'.3

All in all, in spite of these omissions, this is an illuminating study of a key aspect of the ancient world and its reception. The book demonstrates the state of scholarship on aspects of feminism on the one hand and myth on the other, while also revealing the potential for future work on the complex interfaces between the two areas.


1.   See e.g. M. Leonard, 'Creating a Dawn: Writing Through Antiquity in the Works of Hélene Cixous', Arethusa 33.1 (2000), 121-48.
2.   'Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze', American Journal of Archaeology, 100.1 (1996), 53-80.
3.   See e.g. A. Sharrock, 'Re(ge)ndering Gender(ed) Studies', Gender & History, 9.3 (1997), 603-14.

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